Using Design Elements to Create an Effective Sign

Just remember to Keep It Simple Stupid

Just remember to Keep It Simple Stupid

We’ve all seen them…ugly, unreadable or confusing signs. These signs don’t help the businesses they advertise, they hurt them. Customers shouldn’t have to struggle to decipher your sign.  Its purpose and message should be obvious. Here are some simple rules to create an effective sign for your business. After all, your sign is one of your most important marketing tools. Why not do it right?

Design Elements of an Effective Sign


If your customer can’t make out the words your sign it’s virtually useless for your business. Recently, a small business in my town posted a banner in front of its store. The banner was pink and had the name of the business written in a script font. I drove past the store several times, each time wondering what the business was. Based on the banner design, I could tell that it was something catering to female customers, but I couldn’t read the loopy script font. Finally, after weeks of driving past, there was a traffic accident down the street and I was stopped right in front of the banner. After a few minutes of squinting, I finally realized that it said, “Alluring Nails.” I’m just guessing, but I bet the lady who rear-ended the car in front of her was craning her head in an attempt to read the sign and failed to watch the traffic.

The typeface on your sign must be legible, especially for drivers who want to read it while driving by. Avoid cursive or novelty fonts at all costs! A sans serif font, such as Helvetica or Arial, is the easiest to read on typeface larger than 14 pt. While you can certainly emphasize an important word by using a different font, don’t mix several fonts on one sign. Avoid using all caps; it is difficult to read.

This sign uses a sans serif font.

This sign uses a sans serif font.


Be very careful when using images on your sign – the image should make an immediate connection to your business that the customer will understand.

A new pet store spent a lot of money on a billboard that generated confusion, not sales. It featured a large electric guitar, amp and musical notes surrounded by fish and a lizard. The strange combination of images didn’t seem to make much sense and the sign had only one small line of text that wasn’t readable from the ground level. Only when the billboard was removed and re-designed did people understand: the name of the store was “Rock Star Pets.” The new billboard featured the store name in large, easy-to-read print with a large guitar propped up against the “R” with several fish placed in an array around the perimeter of the sign. The redesign was much better – its primary focus was on the business name and used images to make the connection between rock stars and pets. The store began receiving more calls about its selection of fish instead of about its strange, confusing sign.

There are several other things to consider when using images. If you choose to use a photo, make sure that it is clear and large enough for the image to be easy for customers to see and know what it is.

Images can be used to replace information but can be too much when paired with a lot of text.

Your logo is often the best image to use on your sign. It makes the connection in the reader’s mind between your business and your message and builds brand consciousness.


An effective sign gets its message across quickly and clearly. A sign placed on the street should have only a few words and be very simple, since motorists will have mere seconds to both read and process your message. Three to five words is considered ideal for a street sign.

A sign in the window or hanging over the entrance to a business may be read by customers as they walk toward your store and can have more information to excite the customer about sales or special merchandise.

Signs placed at the point of sale can have more information than a street sign. This will give the customer something to read as they wait in line and may give them information about your products or services that will help them make their purchase.

Tailor your sign to its environment and you will generate informed, interested customers.

Color Combinations

Type and Background Color Combinations

Extensive research has been conducted to determine which color combinations are the easiest to read. Research has proven that the best combinations are text of either black, dark blue or red on a yellow or white background. White text is the most difficult for the eye to process.

Approximately 8% of men in the US are color blind. The combination easiest to read for people who are color blind is dark blue text on a yellow background.

When using more than one sign to promote your business, stick to the same basic color scheme to unify the pieces and avoid a carnival-like atmosphere. There should be coherence between your signs, logo and other promotional materials.

White Space

Leave plenty of white space. The space doesn’t actually need to be white – the term white space refers to space on your sign void of text or images. White space allows the eye to be drawn to the text – which, after all, is the message you want to convey. Too many images or too much text can overwhelm the reader and do not leave enough time for them to process all the information on your sign before he or she has passed it.

Studies show that 30% to 40% of your sign should be white space.

Your Message


A sign is not something that should be hastily slapped together and thrown up in your store. Before you begin designing, spend some time thinking about the message you want to convey. Do you want to tell the customer about a special sale? Increase brand awareness? Give customers detailed information about your product selection? You won’t be able to convey all of these messages on one sign. Instead, use several signs with each sign conveying a singular message. This way, you’ll get the most return from each sign.